Tears and cheers for a giant panda’s last birthday in DC

August 27, 2023

Mixed emotions filled the air in front of the giant panda exhibit at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. Sunday morning.

Tian Tian, one of the Zoo’s beloved black-and-white bears, turned 26, with hundreds of spectators cheering and some even tearing up.

“I’ve loved pandas my whole life — I can’t explain it,” said longtime District resident Stephanie Rogers. “I’m really excited to see the panda’s last birthday in Washington.”

In December, all the pandas at the National Zoo are set to go to China, and so far, there’s no word on whether they will ever return.

“It’s super sad,” Rogers said. “I hope that they can work out a new arrangement with China.”

Onlookers traveled from as far away as Toronto, Canada, and even Scotland to watch Tian Tian (pronounced t-YEN t-YEN) devour a birthday treat made up of various fruits and veggies.

D.C. native Helen Gonzales explained why pandas draw so much attention and elicit such strong emotions.

“Unlike other animals, who eat on all fours, the fact that they sit and you can see them and look at their face and study them a little bit more and all,” Gonzales said while wearing a panda shirt. “To me, it’s a little bit more of a connection, it gives you time to get to see their faces, their personalities more.”

Gonzales said she understands why the Chinese want to bring the pandas back home.

“I understand, culturally, why China wants the older pandas back because they were born in China,” Gonzales said. “They want them to go back and retire there and then to die in their homeland.”

Yet, their departure still stings, she said.

“Part of me is heartbroken and will cry a lot,” Gonzales said. “And it’s a big loss for the zoo, but certainly, personally, for a lot of us. The pandas have helped us through a lot of personal losses.”

Luke Garrett

Luke Garrett is a D.C. native dedicated to journalism. He is a reporter and the creator, host and producer of the original WTOP podcast, “DMV Download.” The podcast debuted in 2022. On the show, Garrett takes a weekly look at the biggest stories and ideas in the D.C. region.

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